EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures has dropped plans to finance and distribute Memphis, the Paul Greengrass-directed film about the final days and assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The studio has halted progress on a film scripted by Greengrass and produced by Scott Rudin. Universal picked it up last month, with plans to put the picture in to production in June so that it could be ready for release around MLK Weekend, 2012. Why has this happened? The studio confirms that it halted the movie, but attributed it to timing and scheduling, and an uncertainty the film could be pulled together in time for next February.
I’ve heard another factor put pressure on the picture: the MLK estate was highly critical of the project, and exerted pressure on the studio to call it off. I’ve heard that Andrew Young, former confidante of the civil rights leader, reached out to Universal personally to register his objections. Now, I’d heard similar whispers when Lee Daniels was trying to make the MLK project, Selma, which seemed about to get underway last fall when The Weinstein Company stepped up as financier, but didn’t get off the ground. The family, I’ve heard, made it known that it might go public with its displeasure over Greengrass’s script, which could have hurt the film’s theatrical prospects. Whether this is because the film goes in controversial directions, or because the estate has thrown its lot in with the Ronald Harwood-scripted MLK film at DreamWorks (which paid for the rights to use Dr. King’s copyrighted speeches) is anyone’s guess. All I know is that Rudin and Greengrass are now looking for another backer to keep the film on track. That is eminently possible considering Greengrass’s track record with non-fiction features. Since moving away from documentaries, the British former helmer has made two, and both were superb. He directed Bloody Sunday, about the massacre of Irish civil rights protesters by British soldiers in 1972, and United 93, a real-time account of how passengers on that plane overpowered hijackers of the flight and caused it to crash in a field in Pennsylvania before the hijackers could reach D.C. The latter won Greengrass a Best Director nomination for a film that was financed and distributed by Universal. Memphis would have been Greengrass’s first film at Universal since he directed Green Zone and dropped out of directing a fourth installment of The Bourne Identity.